By Jessica Hopper, Michelle Balani and Alissa Figueroa
Off the coast of Honduras, divers are dying in search of what they call "red gold." The treasure they're hunting is the lobster that ends up on many American dinner plates.
"Americans should know that every time they eat the lobster, there is a history behind that lobster," said Dr. Elmer Mejia.
Mejia has been treating lobster divers for nearly three years at his clinic in La Ceiba, Honduras. The doctor has the only hyperbaric chamber to treat the men who come to him when they are suffering from decompression sickness, commonly called "the bends."
Thousands of men have become permanently disabled working in the unsafe and poorly regulated lobster industry in Honduras. They dive at depths of up to 120 feet with air tanks that rarely have pressure gauges to warn them when their supply is running low. The divers then bolt to the surface when they're running out of air, which can result in severe decompression sickness and in some cases, paralysis.
"It's incredibly dangerous what they are doing. They are diving so far beyond anything that we would consider to be within acceptable limits," said Eric Douglas, who writes about diving safety and has studied the Miskito divers along with Dr. Mejia. "They are poorly trained. They are poorly equipped," said Douglas. "They have none of the basic things that divers today would consider mandatory equipment- pressure gauges, alternate air sources, even a buoyancy control vest to help them float underwater without effort."
These men dive as many as 16 times a day, and sometimes ignore their difficulty breathing to attempt to catch one more lobster.
"They get paid by the pound, so the more lobsters they can get on every one of those dives, the more money they make. So they're going to push it for every last breath in the tank," said Douglas.
About 90 percent of their catch ends up in the United States, according to the Honduran government.
Mejia has treated more than 250 divers over the past three years. These men are often paralyzed as a result of their decompression illness.
"It's very difficult when you see very young people paralyzed from the neck down below and you know that they will not improve," said Dr. Mejia.
Mejia frequently travels to the Miskito Coast, a remote area of Honduras about 200 miles from his clinic where most of his patients live. People here have no electricity or running water. There are few other job opportunities, and most families have at least one male relative who was injured diving for America's dinners.
In a dilapidated one-room house, Wilmur Mauricio Sambola lay dying. He was paralyzed from the chest down while diving for lobster and he was suffering from a severe infection caused by his illness. Mejia had treated Sambola ten months earlier and knew that his injuries were severe, but he was still shocked to see how rapidly he had deteriorated.
"He was a very strong man, I'm really surprised at his condition at this moment," said Mejia as he leaned over the ailing man.
During his visit, there was little Mejia could do to treat the 31-year-old man except to provide him with pain medication.
Some 4,500 divers throughout the Miskito Coast have suffered from dive-related injuries like Sambola. Those lucky enough to be healed often return to diving.
"We feel very pleased when they improve very quickly at the chamber, but sometimes we are kind of scared because if they improve so quick, so fast, they will think the hyperbaric chamber makes miracles," said Mejia. "So they will go back again diving and the next time can be the last time."
They take the risk for a few hundred dollars a month.
"Whether they are dive caught or trap caught lobsters, you can't tell, all that we're looking at is the tail," said Agent Paul Raymond of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
There are no laws in the U.S. blocking the import of lobster caught by deep sea divers like the Miskito men.
The Honduran government is working with regional fishing agencies and nonprofit organizations to put an end to lobster diving within two years. USAID and the World Bank are providing funding to help the divers find alternate work if the ban takes place.
"If we do not provide the job alternatives, stopping the diving will be like killing them," says Dr. Mejia.